I Miss My '80s Back To School Shopping Trips

by April Brown Pulliam
Originally Published: 
Image via Shutterstock

Piling into the backseat of my grandmother’s blue Buick Regal with the navy vinyl top used to be the highlight of my Augusts, because the end of summer marked the time to buy all of our school gear. There was nothing else on earth like preparing for the first day of a new school year. I looked forward all summer to our trip to the nearest mall for clothes, a lengthy stay in a K-mart or Walmart scouring the aisles for all the school supplies I loved to call mine and a leisurely ride listening to my mother and grandmother plan where to eat as they ticked items off our back-to-school lists. I reveled in the whole experience.

Each fall in the ’80s, my sister and I would stand in dressing rooms adjacent one another while our mother handed top after neon top and jean after tight, roll-worthy jean over the door for us to accept or reject. It must have been akin to being a Kardashian. Our poor mother was at our beck and call. This was the one and only time of the year we had veto power in the clothes department, and boy, did we use it. After all, these were the pieces we would wear day after day for weeks until the inevitable happened and we outgrew them. We made these choices count.

It was critical to our happiness to choose the correct shade of green on a Max Headroom Hypercolor T-shirt. Shoulder pads, another must-have, were required to fit in a way that made us look like an extra on Dynasty. Apparently, in the ’80s and early ’90s, we all aspired to look like football players. One’s jeans in the ’80s had to be the correct shade of whitewash and the perfect length to yield a neat, tight roll. Socks, if our begging fell upon deaf ears and our mother purchased them anyway, could not be bulky in any way, shape or form. It was always a relief when she didn’t pursue the sock shopping. What we wanted more than anything was to wear our Keds without socks (I am pretty sure our sense of smell did not develop until well into high school).

If I loved shopping for clothes, I utterly adored gathering my own supplies for school. Choosing the perfect notebook and cracking open a brand new box of crayons just to smell the perfection of the unmarred wax was just heaven. If we were really lucky, my mother would give us the go-ahead to select the box of Crayolas with the sharpener. If not, well, our grandmother just might. Especially thrilling were the years when my mother would say yes to both the markers and the colored pencils. We could hardly contain ourselves!

All of my supply choices were special and new and perfect to me in the those moments in the stationery aisles in the middle of the ’80s. One choice always stands out in my mind, though: the piece de resistance, the Trapper Keeper! The Trapper Keeper was the one item that was the most awkward but the most cherished. My Trapper Keeper just had to be seen by everyone. It supported the pile of books I carried to and from my classes and on and off my bus each day. If positioned correctly, all who passed by saw the design I had carefully chosen peeking out between my arms below my textbooks. This be-all and end-all of binders was the Holy Grail of my school supply haul. In addition to the beloved blue Trapper Keeper with the rainbow splashed across the front and the loud Velcro fastener, new boxes of pencils, the perfect art box (cardboard, not plastic), and a lunch box with a Thermos (metal, again, not plastic) graced the bottom of the shopping cart before we called ourselves ready to check out.

In between visits to the various stores, our ride on the plush seats of the Buick was cushioned further by our shopping bags. My sister and I rummaged through the sacks, sorting our items into our own personal bags to be kept in our bedrooms until the first day of school arrived. The ride was peppered with comments from my mother about how much we had grown and how she wished we would not roll up our pants and how she wished that crop tops would just hurry up and go out of style already. As she and my grandmother searched for a restaurant to refuel all of us, my sister and I made plans to ask for a few extra things like Lisa Frank stickers or a four-color pen.

Life has carried me far from the backseat of that Buick Regal. It is not 1984 anymore, and I am a parent now. My own teenagers don’t want neon shirts; they want black or painfully plain. The socks they choose from the pegs in department stores are ribbed, striped, loudly patterned and would cover me from toe to knee. The horror! The one shred of faith I have in fashion is that Converse’s Chucks have withstood the test of time, even if my children do choose the ones picturing Superman or Batman and not the old school white with red racing stripe and white rubber sidewalls. My teens don’t know the connection between a good rubber band and the cuffs of their jeans, and I believe they think a tight roll can be bought in a donut shop.

I had another brief moment of nostalgic euphoria one August when I saw the Trapper Keeper had made a comeback. I almost did the Cabbage Patch right there in front of the filler paper and folders and all of the other ’80s moms with lists in hand. Yeah…no, there is only one Trapper Keeper, and it is straight out of the big hair and Aqua Net decade. I wanted to buy my son and daughter each one, but then I examined one. I snatched one up, almost squealing and smelled it. Yes, I said I smelled it. You see, real Trapper Keepers had an almost mesmerizing laminate smell that, apparently, cannot be duplicated in 2015.

I don’t get to buy metal lunch boxes with rough ribbed handles featuring the Smurfs or Gremlins. I don’t even get to buy brightly patterned notebooks, and my two teens don’t even want the newfangled, sleek, and no doubt, improved Trapper Keepers. I was told just last week to, please, buy plain colors of folders, no plaids, no stripes and no kittens either. Their binders depress me because they aren’t the right kind of neon and don’t have that fetching retro font. I think, just maybe, I have bought my last box of Crayolas with the little plastic sharpener right in the back. It is quite possible that as my children moved through elementary school, I was as in love with buying their supplies as I ever had been being taken school shopping myself. My children seem to have outgrown this love, but I have not.

I miss the ’80s, and I miss them hard in August. I long to ride in the backseat and scrounge through bags of tops and pants that have yet to lose that department store smell. I yearn for the strong laminate odor of a good, vintage Trapper Keeper and the obnoxious sound of its Velcro closure ripping open. Shoot, I would carry a metal E.T. lunch box to work tomorrow morning if I could (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it). I would do it all again, except for maybe the shoulder pads. The ’80s can keep the shoulder pads.

This article was originally published on